Many corporate safety plans are “isolated” inasmuch as they deal with how organizations will respond individually in an emergency. However, when adopting components of the National Incident Command System, organizations can benefit from a unified, multi-agency response to an emergency.
Most organizations are required to have corporate safety plans under OSHA §1910.38. The plans should include specific procedures for how the organization will react in reasonably-anticipated workplace emergencies and assign responsibilities in areas such as communication, response management, disaster recovery, and business continuity.
Because individual organizations usually develop their own individual corporate safety plans, there is often no collaboration with other organizations or agencies. This can lead to the lack of an orderly, systematic response in the event of a widespread regional emergency such as a natural disaster or the outbreak of a contagious disease.
The Birth of the National Incident Command System
This was the situation facing fire departments in Arizona in the 1970s following a series of catastrophic wildfires throughout Arizona and California. The wildfires were responsible for considerable property damage and loss of life, and investigators found response problems were attributable to deficiencies in communication and management, rather than a lack of resources or the appropriate firefighting tactics.
The state's emergency managers determined that the regional fire departments' unique management structures did not scale effectively to deliver a unified, multi-agency response to regional emergencies. They subsequently developed the Incident Command System to provide a consistent, integrated framework for the management of all types of emergencies from traffic accidents to hostage crises.
The framework was adopted nationally and became the model for command structures at fires, crimes scenes, and other major incidents around the country - and internationally. It remained the national emergency management model until the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security in 2002 and the development of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
Incident Command System Integrated into NIMS
The role of developing NIMS fell to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and, due to the proven effectiveness of the Incident Command System, its key components were integrated into the new system. All state-funded agencies are now required to follow NIMS protocols, and the scope of NIMS has been extended to include private-sector organizations who wish to join the system voluntarily.
The benefits for a private-sector organization of joining NIMS voluntarily include a unified approach to incident management, a standard command and emergency management structure, and a shared emphasis on emergency preparedness, mutual aid, and resource management. These benefits will certainly enhance communication, response management, disaster recovery, and business continuity during and after a widespread regional disaster, but they can also apply during smaller incidents as well.
Furthermore, FEMA helps private-sector organizations meet the criteria to become NIMS-compliant (see “The Fourteen Components of the Incident Command System” below). The agency provides training, personnel qualification and equipment certification, and help with resource management and technology support. These are all further benefits of joining NIMS voluntarily - particularly if your organization operates in a hazardous industry such as the energy, chemical, or waste industries.
The Fourteen Components of the Incident Command System
In order to voluntary join NIMS, a private-sector organization must comply with the “Private Sector NIMS Implementation Activities” - a revised version of the fourteen components of the Incident Command System divided into seven sections. Even if organizations have no intention of voluntarily joining NIMS, it can be beneficial to adopt some of the components in their corporate safety plans.
Section 1 - NIMS Adoption
1. When the organization has chosen to join NIMS, it is very important to ensure everyone is on board. FEMA recommends bringing in corporate leaders, trade associations, and incident management teams in the decision-making process, but it is very important to include the IT department as well.
2. Once the decision to join NIMS has been made, your organization´s key points of contact should be shared with the local emergency management authority. It is important contact details are kept up-to-date, so a system needs to be put in place to synchronize key personnel changes when they occur.
Section 2 - Command and Management
3. When an incident occurs that requires an emergency response (fire, medical, police, etc.), FEMA recommends the organization manages the incident using the Incident Command System organizational structure (PDF), and NIMS-approved Incident Action Planning and Common Communication Plan.
4. FEMA also recommends organizations also use an integrated Multi-Agency Coordination System (see the section about “WebEOC” below) to support a connectivity capability between local Incident Command Posts, 9-1-1 PSAPs, and local, state, and federal Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs).
5. In addition, FEMA recommends each organization has its own public information system. During an emergency incident, it may be necessary to alert the public to the risk of danger; so establishing communication channels with the media and other private sector partners in advance is advised.
Section 3 - Preparedness Planning
6. Organizations should revise existing corporate safety plans in order to incorporate NIMS components, principles and policies such as planning, training, response, exercises, equipment, evaluation and corrective actions. The revised corporate safety plan should be shared throughout the organization.
7. If your organization has its own firefighters, security team, or medical team, FEMA recommends exchanging memorandums of understanding with government agencies and other private-sector organizations to promote mutual aid - i.e. we'll help you when you're in trouble. In return, you help us.
Section 4 - Preparedness Training
8. NIMS consists of a core set of doctrines, concepts, principles, terminology, and organizational processes to enable effective, efficient, and collaborative incident management. To help organizations comply with these protocols, FEMA offers a range of training courses for personnel at all levels.
Section 5 - Preparedness Exercises
9. FEMA recommends trained personnel should participate in state, territory, regional, tribal and/or local NIMS-based preparedness exercises to develop experience in realistic multi-agency, multi-discipline and multi-jurisdictional exercises designed to improve integration and interoperability.
10. Organizations should use these experiences to develop their own NIMS-based exercise program specific to the organizational structure. This will give the organization the opportunity to test compliance with components 1 to 5 above and components 12 to 14 below.
11. From these internal preparedness exercises, organizations should be able to identify weaknesses in their emergency preparedness in order to apply corrective actions in subsequent preparedness exercises. There may also be correction observations passed down from local NIMS-based exercises.
Section 6 - Resource Management
12. With regards to the organization's own response assets, these should be recorded in the format described on FEMA's NIMS Mutual Aid Guidelines (PDF). The inventory should be shared with the local emergency management authority and any organizations with which there are mutual aid agreements.
13. The organization should coordinate training with mutual aid organizations to exercise their response asset inventory, and also the inventories of their mutual aid partners. This will also provide mutual aid partners with the opportunity to exercise their communication and information management.
Section 7 - Communication and Information Management
14. The final component of the National Incident Command System is to adopt a standardized and consistent terminology throughout the organization and use plain language communications to ensure accessibility and interoperability, and to avoid miscommunication during an emergency.
WebEOC Brings Together Multiple Agencies and Organizations
The WebEOC platform (Web Emergency Operations Center) was launched in 1998 as a user-friendly, web-based incident management system for businesses. The platform was adopted by FEMA in 2011 as its crisis management system to support emergency management at all levels from local to federal. As such it is the agency's preferred Multi-Agency Coordination System mentioned in Component 4 above.
As all state-funded agencies are required to follow NIMS protocols, they all choose to use the WebEOC platform. This means that every emergency service, emergency management agency, and private-sector organization connected to the platform is sharing information and resources, and working together in a collaborative manner in order to resolve emergency incidents as quickly and efficiently as possible.
From the perspective of a private-sector organization, when an emergency incident is elevated to the local emergency management authority (via the Incident Command System organizational structure), the authority creates an incident on the WebEOC platform. The platform notifies relevant state agencies and NIMS-approved organizations so a fast response can be organized.
As the emergency develops, the platform is used to share information, increase situational awareness, and coordinate responses. Resource requests can be sent from the field via any Internet-connected device; and, because the local emergency management authority has uploaded each organization's response asset inventory onto WebEOC, incident managers can identify the closest available resource.
The outcome is a fast and effective service that is the best possible solution for addressing any type of emergency incident at any level. Once an emergency incident is resolved, the WebEOC platform keeps the incident open during the clean-up process so that if additional resources are required by a state agency or private organization, they have a means through which to request them.
How Organizations Can Leverage WebEOC and Mass Notification Systems
Some mass notification systems have extensions for WebEOC that supports organizations using the platform in many different ways, while simplifying internal and external communication during and after an emergency.
With regard to the Fourteen Components of the Incident Command System (in the order they appear above);
- Data is synchronized between select mass notification systems and existing HR databases, so organizations using the WebEOC extension can be assured their key personnel contact data is always up-to-date (Component 2).
- Notifications can be sent in multiple formats including the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) to meet the NIMS interoperability requirements of the Common Communication Plan (Component 3).
- An integrated mass notification system enables system administrators to create groups of contacts according to their role, location, or other attribute. It is therefore a suitable solution to use as a public information system (Component 5).
- As select mass notification systems support two-way communication and have its own incident command dashboard, it is the ideal tool to use during internal NIMS-based exercises and for identifying weaknesses in corporate safety plans (Components 10 and 11).
- Built-in consoles allow system administrators to create notification templates in advance. We recommend this practice to avoid miscommunication during a stressful situation, and to help organizations adopt a standardized and consistent terminology (Component 14).
Several private-sector organizations have already taken advantage of mass notification extensions for WebEOC to simplify internal and external communications - not only in an emergency, but also during exercises and day-to-day operations.
Find out more about simplifying your internal and external incident communications.